By Joe Jackson
Packing for the sixth annual Cal-Salmon Race this last weekend—a grassroots event held the first weekend in May on California's Class IV-V Nordheimer stretch—was not so easy.
The gear packing was simple enough. There's no options in bringing the necessary drysuit, rescue vest, booties, full-face helmet, and throwbag for my all-time favorite stretch of big, fluffy, steep, and fun stacked rapids, water that's gin-clear, gorged-in by high granite walls that you need to force yourself to enjoy. But I'm not thinking about the booming Class V finish of Freight Train as I pack; I'm focused on what's going to happen after the race.
The real question is: Do I bring the chuggler? Is it too much? How about a sexy policeman outfit with tequila-filled Super Soaker? The race theme after all, is "Occupy vs. The Man." The event's post-race festivities have rightfully gained a rowdy reputation. But I settle on the ole standby—cowboy hat plus PBR—and hit the road with my girlfriend to the very northern tip of California.
This race is as organic as they come. Paul Gamache, originator and current organizer, decided to create it in 2006 because there were always a bunch of boaters at the Nordheimer Campground the first weekend in May. Over the past six years, the race has remained intentionally very much in the grassroots vein of the Occupy half of the party theme. "There isn't a registration table or anything," Gamache says. "I just put the forms on the roof of my car."
Thanks in part to the low organizational overhead, and the donated beer, the race has also remained incredibly cheap—$5 for the entire festival, which includes camping, beer, and event insurance through the American Canoe Association. While the event had a long list of generous sponsors—Kokatat, Sperry Topsiders, Arcata Scoop, Adventures' Edge, Salmon River Outpost, CaliProduct, Ben York Photography, Pleasure Center, Stuff N’ Things, Ninkasi Brewery, and Lost Coast Brewery—it remains and looks to remain beautifully banner-free. "I don't see it becoming Teva Mountain Games-style, even though it would be a prime spot for a multi-sport event," Gamache adds.
Culture aside, the Nordheimer campground couldn't hold an event like the Teva Mountain Games because it is remote. I mean seriously remote. I heard the nearest town, Forks of Salmon—where Rush Sturges grew up at his folks' kayak school Otter Bar—has the most remote post office in California, 60 miles and separated by a 6,000-foot pass from the next nearest one. "That depends on how you define remote," responded Jessie Allen, who was working at said post office when I called to try and confirm the claim.
This year's seven-mile race had the most participants to date, boasting nearly 80 boaters from California, Washington, and Oregon. "It was so good to see the variety of rafters, catarafters, and kayakers in the water," says Paul Gillingham, who helped organize the event in years past. And despite the difficult whitewater and high number of participants, the race had another injury-free year with safety was set at all of the major rapids. "Nordheimer has a high perceived difficulty," Gamache says. "This causes boaters who wouldn't be comfortable on it to respect it, watch the race, and go paddle the other Class III-IV in the area."
Saturday, race day, was glorious. At 70 degrees, with the river flowing medium-high (perfect in my opinion), I started my run 15 minutes in front of the racers. The top five racers passed me after the third rapid, and I helped set up safety at Last Chance—a tricky rapid separated by about five feet of slack-water from the blood-pumping, aptly named final rapid, Freight Train.
No one swam at Last Chance and a majority of the lines at Freight Train were beautiful. The event was a success, and it raised nearly $600 in raffle funds for Matt Thomas, a well known Nordheimer kayaker paralyzed from the chest down in 2009 mountain bike accident. Back at the campsite, word was spreading about the largest full moon of the year, and tequila was in abundance, thanks to our celebration of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín's unlikely 1862 victory over French troops in the town of Puebla. It looked to be an amazingly wild party after an amazing day.
So as the giant moon rose over the Marble Mountains and my girlfriend and I approached the party epicenter, I recounted stories of the "art cuts" that people gave each other last year with a beard trimmer. I painted the scene of the morning-after carnage of last years' party—unattended kayaks roped into trees and attached to the kegs with bike locks, or thrown atop port-a-potties. My excitement reached a crescendo as I entered the party.
And then we were greeted by a nice, downright mellow, gathering of 50 or so polite paddlers and friends. We didn't stay up too late. There were no art cuts. The music, coming from an SUV with its doors open, was not obnoxiously loud. It was a group of like-minded people filling up any re-usable bottle or cup they could find with delicious keg beer and chatting about rivers. It was wonderful.
I wondered what caused the toned-down evening. Was it how many people had kayaked and were tired? Was it the fire dancers spinning us into a trance? Was it that the event is now maturing along with its participants? None of these answers seemed to suffice. But really, who cares?
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